The technology revolution is a multidisciplinary phenomenon cutting across all dimensions of human experience.
We’re talking about advances in biotechnology that will help us identify, understand, manipulate, improve, and control living organisms – including humans.
New, “smart” materials, agile manufacturing, and nanotechnology are already changing the way we make devices and expanding their capabilities.
Conversations like this will lead to cures for diseases like cancer, the eradication of malnutrition, elimination of pollution, extension of life expectancy, and improvement of quality of life.
The continuing proliferation and increasing utility of information is the thread tying this revolution together and driving it forward.
Since the first transistor was fabricated in 1947, we’ve witnessed a 1-million-time reduction in the size of what we now call computer chips. The state of the art is Intel Corp.’s (INTC) 22-nanometer, three-dimensional Tri-Gate transistor.
Processing speed — or “time integration” — has improved by one million times.
So today we’re going to talk about one discrete discipline that’s been left behind… but may soon start to catch up.
Compared with what’s happening with information storage, energy storage is basically stuck in the 19th century.
Since the lead-acid battery was invented in 1859 — in time to power Civil War telegraph communication between armies in the field and military and civilian leaders in Washington, D.C. — we’ve witnessed “energy integration” of about five times.
The first lead-acid batteries provided about 40 watt-hours per kilogram. The latest lithium-ion batteries have improved to about 200.
Due largely to its high power-to-weight ratio and its low cost, lead-acid remains the standard for powering things like car batteries, backup supplies in cellphone towers, generators for facilities such as hospitals, and stand-alone power systems.
People are starting to pay attention, though, and this quiet corner of the technology revolution is about to get a lot noisier. Or disrupted, if you will.
Battery buzz has been building because of portable power. Think of devices such as laptops, digital cameras, and smartphones.
Now we’re onto electrified transportation, driven by Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) and the proliferation of airborne drones, based on major advances in the amount of energy we can integrate within a given weight or volume.
The next frontier is the electric grid.
The electric grid takes power from where it’s generated to where it’s used. It integrates generating stations that produce electricity, high-voltage transmission lines that carry it to demand centers, and distribution lines that connect to homes and businesses.
It’s been called one of the greatest inventions in human history. And it’s also still rooted in 19th century technology.
Let’s set aside for the moment issues such as its vulnerability to terrorists and hackers and the mass chaos that can result from disruption and talk about the integration of new storage technology into the grid.
Storage will increase grid stability by reducing incidents such as brownouts and blackouts. And it will also solve the “intermittency” problem and enable the utility-scale use of solar and wind power.
We can be more efficient and cleaner.
Until very recently, options for the long-term storage of wind and solar power were thought to be limited.
Chemical energy storage — converting output to hydrogen via electrolysis for future use in vehicles or fuel cells or to methane for use in the gas grid or for direct heat and power generation — was one option.
Tesla’s Musk is a champion of compressed air energy storage (CAES).
According to the Energy Storage Association, “In a CAES plant, ambient air is compressed and stored under pressure in an underground cavern. When electricity is required, the pressurized air is heated and expanded in an expansion turbine, driving a generator for power production.”
CAES is basically a variation on the technology employed by pumped-hydro plants in terms of application, output, and capacity.
Pumped hydro, the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage presently available, has been around since the 1890s.
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It stores energy that’s pumped from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. Low-cost, off-peak electric power is used to run the pumps. The stored water is ultimately released through turbines to produce electric power.
So what about batteries? Well, No. 2 on the World Economic Forum’s annual list of breakthrough technologies is next-generation batteries that will allow for grid-scale energy storage.
Companies such as Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. (ALTI), A123 Systems, and Swiss firm Leclanché are doing fascinating work with lithium-ion technology.
According to an Altair press release, “Going beyond lithium-ion, Altair’s lithium-titanate-based battery systems are among the highest-performing and most-scalable, with applications that include battery cells for military artillery, battery packs for hybrid vehicles and energy storage systems for large-scale stationary power services.”
A123Systems’ website says its “proprietary nanoscale electrode technology is built on initial developments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
Established in 1909, Leclanché develops proprietary lithium-ion technologies and operates its own factory, producing lithium-ion titanate as well as graphite/nickel-manganese-cobalt cells.
But the most exciting development for storage technology may be the product of one small Scottsdale, Arizona, startup Fluidic Energy.
Fluidic’s proprietary zinc-air battery technology and integrated intelligence may be the battery technology innovation that checks the boxes: higher energy density, lower cost, better safety, and longer life.
The company has raised more than $150 million in funding from venture capitalists and government sources, and now has the financial backing of Caterpillar Inc. (CAT).
Fluidic, which owns more than 100 patents, now has more than 75,000 batteries in use around the world.
According to the company’s website:
Comparing lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries to Fluidic’s Zinc-Air Battery is like comparing sprinters to marathon runners. Both perform the same fundamental activity, yet each releases energy very differently, over different periods of time. Zinc-Air Batteries, like a marathon runner, exert a steady flow of energy over a longer period of time. They’re capable of storing large amounts of energy and discharging it nonstop for four, eight, 12, or over 72 hours.
Spun out from research at Arizona State University, Fluidic is already providing mini-grid solutions to more than 400,000 residents in 100 remote villages and communities in rural Madagascar.
And it recently signed a memorandum of understanding to deploy similar solutions in Indonesia.
Today, it’s delivering electricity to 2.7 million people, with a stated goal of serving 100 million by 2025.
In addition to its mini-grid systems, Fluidic’s batteries are also in high demand in the telecom industry to power cell towers.
They also provide critical backup power for national security, military, first-responder, and emergency road and utility repair crews as well as hospitals.
And the zinc-air technology is also grid-enabling, safe for use by commercial and residential customers who want to produce and store their own power.
That’s some 21st century stuff right there.
The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments…
Although I was never myself discouraged or inclined to be hopeless of its success, I cannot say the same for all of my associates…
And yet through all of the years of experimenting and research, I never once made a discovery. All my work was deductive…
The results I achieved were those of invention — pure and simple. I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it untenable. Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved. This was the only possible way for me to work out the problem.
— Thomas Edison, paraphrased from Edison — The Man and His Work by George S. Bryan
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily